BY EDOARDO MESITI
This year marks two milestones for the late actress and radio personality Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952). Firstly, were she still alive, June 10 would have been her 100th birthday. Secondly, it has been 75 years since she became the first African-American to win an Oscar. She earned the prize for her performance as Mammy, a housemaid, in the epic film Gone with the Wind (1939).
Based on the Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, the film is set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction eras (1861-1877). This period also saw the abolition of slavery of black people in 1865 (150 years ago on December 18 this year) when the 13th amendment was passed under President Abraham Lincoln.
But inequality for African Americans was still a fact in some states of the US. Regulations known as “Jim Crow laws” prevented McDaniel and the rest of the black cast from attending the Gone with the Wind world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. Their images were also removed from promotional material and souvenirs promoting the film.
Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick and male lead actor Clark Gable tried unsuccessfully to convince Atlanta’s city officials to make an exception. However, the full cast was allowed to attend the Hollywood, California premiere, and promotional images there featured McDaniel.
At the 1940 Oscar awards – held at a “no blacks” hotel – McDaniel (who wore white gardenias in her hair) and her escort were seated away from her co-stars and the rest of the attendees. That night McDaniel won the prize for Best Supporting Actress.
Although McDaniel’s Oscar win was deemed a victory for black people, her choice to play a servant in Gone with the Wind and her subsequent acting roles were met with criticism. These roles played on Hollywood’s negative stereotypes of black people as illiterate, childlike, stupid and accepting of slavery and lowly positions in society.
Complaints were made by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They complained that her Gone with the Wind character spoke nostalgically about the pre-American Civil War “Old South“, and a time and place when the treatment of black people was at its worst. They were also concerned that these roles restricted black actors to playing servant parts in film and television.
McDaniel responded to this criticism saying, “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!”
By 1947 she became the first black actress to have her own radio show with the sitcom Beulah. She played a housemaid in the title role. A spin-off television series was made in 1950 and starred Ethel Waters, who McDaniel replaced in 1952. However, she had to pull out after six episodes when she discovered that she had advanced breast cancer. She died that year aged 57.
McDaniel’s Oscar award was bequeathed to Howard University after her death. However, during protests in the 1960s, the statuette went missing and has never been found.
Hattie McDaniel was given two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – for radio and film. There have also been numerous stage shows and television specials based on her life in America, such as: Hi-Hat-Hattie and Hattie … What I Need You To Know, and the Emmy Award winning television special, Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life Of Hattie McDaniel (2001).
In 2010 another black actress, Mo’Nique, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Precious (2009). At the ceremony she wore white gardenias in her hair as McDaniel did when she attended the event in 1940. In her speech, Mo’Nique expressed gratitude to McDaniel for her strength: “I want to thank her for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to.”